A Better Model For Taking the Stress Out of the Competitive College Admissions Race

As college acceptances and rejections hit the emails of students this week, the plethora of articles on the increasingly competitive process -- one that takes an emotional toll on parents and students alike -- roll out with predictable regularity as well.
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As college acceptances and rejections hit the emails of students this week, the plethora of articles on the increasingly competitive process -- one that takes an emotional toll on parents and students alike -- roll out with predictable regularity as well. They usually focus on how many more students are vying for admission to the nation's most prestigious universities -- where acceptance rates are under 10 percent -- making admission more of a long shot than ever. Among them was this article by Frank Bruni, this article by Frank Brunibased on his new book, that ran in The New York Times asking to stop the madness. After his article ran, Bruni made an appearance on The Diane Rehm Show on NPRwhere he discussed the virtue of shunning the Ivy League schools. He's just the latest opinion writer to highlight the perils of tying your self worth to acceptance at a top college.

One aspect that Bruni doesn't discuss in great detail is the arduous path to getting into the college of your choice, be it an Ivy or a well regarded, and far more affordable, state school. Students feel they must toil away during their high school years developing the perfect resume. instead of just enjoying being a teenager. That's really where the madness begins. In this article, In this article, psychiatrist Adam Strassberg gives some extremely valuable advice to parents on how to decrease the risks of teen suicides, a problem that's often fueled by the worry about being the perfect student. He says it's ridiculous that being "brave" means having your child only take the SAT once, not play a varsity sport or not take an AP class: "Since when does it make sense that a 16-year-old's weekly schedule should be twice as packed with meetings and assignments than his middle-aged parents? This is not normal. This could never be normal." As students, concerned about not getting into any top school, apply to dozens of schools (a laborious and expensive exercise by itself), teenagers are spending these precious years caught up in the frenzy of carrying out community service and extracurricular activities and doing hours of homework solely for the sake of getting into their dream school. But little has been written about how we can change this situation, one that is resulting in drastic rises in teenage depression.

When running cross country proved taxing on my daughter's time, making it hard to juggle school work and raising her stress level, she didn't think twice about quitting the team. She didn't obsess about how having only two years participating in the sport would look on her college application. And she didn't take one advanced placement class. She has been fortunate to attend a school that brings sanity back to the high school experience and that has significantly reduced anxiety while promoting learning in the classroom. My daughter attends Community High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a school that, in my opinion, could be a model for how high schools should be run today. No advanced placement classes are offered, since the school opposes tracking and grouping all the high achievers into one class. Instead, high school students of all abilities and ages, are grouped together, resulting in much richer classroom discussions that reflect a variety of perspectives. Since there's less busy work that's often part of the AP curriculum -- and no focus on "teaching to the test" -- students spend far less time at home immersed in their studies. And they're encouraged to demonstrate how they can fare in a college class by actually taking classes in the community.

My daughter took French at the University of Michigan last semester. The school has block scheduling, like college classes, where classes are offered on a couple of days a week instead of every day (so you may have English on Tuesday and Thursday, while Physics is on Monday and Wednesday.) Class periods are longer, allowing for more time for instruction and even time to do homework in class. Community service is part of the curriculum, so students aren't focused on racking up hours outside of class time just for the sake of adding it to their resumes. Teachers root for the students, often allowing them to re-take tests if they're not satisfied with the grades. In fact, grades are not the focus; learning is. This approach has turned out a group of students who are engaged and genuinely enjoy attending school. Since the classes are multi-age, they often have the opportunity to have the same teacher more than once, forming a close relationship with him or her. Each student is part of a forum for four years, allowing them to connect with a consistent, small group of students as well as an instructor who can check in on them throughout high school. The college recommendations are quite meaningful as a result, since the forum leaders and teachers truly know the students. The students have balanced lives and enjoy just chilling in their downtime. It's not unusual for my daughter to spend part of her after school time watching a couple of episodes of "Real Housewives" or babysitting for the neighbors before plunging into her homework. Community is a public school, but you need to get in through a lottery. This year, there were record numbers of students applying to get in; at most one-third are admitted, due to the school's popularity.

Eliminating the stressful components of high school hasn't dimmed the interest of prestigious college in Community High School students or their prospects for getting into the nation's top schools. My daughter will be attending Duke University in the fall. Others in her class were admitted to Yale and Brown. Students in previous classes are now attending the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford and many of the Ivys. Roughly 40 percent of the students who apply are admitted to the very fine state school, the University of Michigan. But the high school counselor is not focused on how many kids he can get into Yale. Instead he's interested in finding the school that best fits each student, whether it be a lesser known school or one of the small liberal arts colleges featured in the book, Colleges That Changes Lives. College admissions officers see the value of the type of education that this school provides, one that's focused on meaningful learning for learning's sake, and not on checking off the boxes on a college application. Students have not had to sacrifice a balanced, far more sane high school existence to gain admission to a great college. And many who choose to attend a Community College or take a break from school altogether after graduation don't feel any less worthy. All the students have had plenty of time to recharge and contemplate what path is best for them.

There has been speculation that the onslaught of binge drinking in college is fueled by students who are so worn out by their high school years that they use college as an excuse to overindulge. They're burned out and exhausted as they enter into what should be an exciting time in their lives. As we contemplate how to temper the effects of the competitive college admissions process on our young adults, I think it would be worthwhile for schools to consider incorporating at least some elements of this innovative way of educating our high school students, one that has proven just as effective as the often excessively taxing approach that most traditional high schools now employ. If we want to stop the madness, maybe we need to re-evaluate the educational system that helps to fuel it.

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